My mother’s father, Franz Fischer, for whom I am named, was born on a pig farm in the village of Küingdorf, Germany in 1868, 3 1/2 weeks after his parents married. Located on the border between Westphalia and Hanover ( now Niedersachsen or Lower Saxony ), the landscape around Küingdorf is reminiscent of parts of Vermont or central Pennsylvania. The farm had sufficient land to raise grain to feed the pigs as well as a productive and profitable forest area. The farm was prosperous and well-maintained, but a pig farm all the same,
Franz was the oldest of nine children and in other another area of Germany would have been the heir apparent. It was a peculiarity of the traditional law in the Küingdorf area, however, that a farm was inherited by the youngest son, not the oldest. Thus, Franz knew early on that he would have to find another way than farming to earn his living. So while still a very young man he became interested in that most modern of conveyances, the bicycle.
In 1902, Franz met Clara Schallenberg, a city girl. She was the daughter of a successful retail and wholesale merchant dealing in household china and kitchen ware. Franz and Clara married in 1903.
One of the first things Franz and Clara did when they married was to register as Konfessionslos — without religious affiliation — in the local registry office. This registration would exempt them from church taxes. My mother wrote later of Franz and Clara, “I grew up in a pleasant, peaceful family in which I was taught to have deep disrespect for organized religion and great respect for fundamental ethical principles that none of us would ever abandon. Our father’s principles were rather simple: we do the right things, not to appeal to some figure ‘up there’ in the sky, but simply to do the right thing.” It was a powerful moral rectitude grounded in principled atheism.
Although Franz was born a farm boy, in the city of Dusseldorf he made himself into a gentleman in a time when social mobility was more limited than it is today. While industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century brought substantial migration from farm to city, Franz and Clara took things a step further and entered the Bildungsbuergertum, the literate and cultured middle class. I remember the proud, respectful tone in my grandmother Clara’s voice when she told me Franz was ein richtiger Herr, a genuine gentleman. Clearly one of the things that made Franz a gentleman is that he dressed the part.
As Franz’ business prospered, he and Clara attended concerts and plays, kept a large library and read extensively. Clara could recite long passages from Goethe and other German classics as well as Shakespeare and the Bible, her atheism notwithstanding. Franz and Clara sent their daughter, my mother Elfriede, to the university preparatory school (Gymnasium) and supported her through her PhD. at Heidelberg. Franz embellished his considerable library by pasting a handsome book plate, designed by a friend who was a graphic artist, inside each cover.
Franz and Clara remained committed to bicycling throughout their lives.
Franz died in 1937, well before I was born, but his photographs have made him very real to me. From my mother’s stories about him, he was an easy person to like and was admired by those who knew him.
The National Socialists took control of the German government on January 30, 1933 and consolidated their power with great speed. Political street violence had been part of German life for a long time, but the Nazis escalated that pattern rapidly and brutally, using terrorist tactics to wipe out political opposition in a matter of weeks. My father, Johannes (1904-1977), was the first victim in our family, when he was arrested in March and imprisoned for several weeks because of his liberal politics, and my grandfather, Rudolf (1873-1953),was next when he was expelled from his professor’s position the following fall, in part because of actions he took against Nazi students. The situation with my mother’s brothers was something else entirely.
My mother had three younger brothers who, in 1933, were in their mid-twenties. All three were good looking and charming, with cheerful dispositions and a taste for evenings with friends in the taverns of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, taverns with names like the Golden Kettle (Im Goldenen Kessel) and Fatty’s Irish Pub, which are still popular today. On the night of Tuesday, November 7, 1933, my uncles Paul Fischer (1909-1947), a recent law graduate still in training, and Herbert Fischer (1907-1992), by day in business with his father, went out for an evening of socializing. Their father Franz (1868-1937) and older brother Günter (1906-1979) were away on a business trip for several days.
The social evening lasted until 3 :00 in the morning, when the bars closed. Paul and Herbert, whose state after a long night of drinking can only be guessed, got into the car of a friend who drove them home. Still joking as they tumbled out of the car, Herbert spotted a poster that had been pasted on a nearby wall and was partially coming off. Tearing the poster off the wall, Herbert crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the car at his friend saying, “Here! You can use this to clean your windshield!” It seems that Herbert didn’t recognize the poster as Nazi propaganda, nor did he notice the Stormtrooper watching nearby. Although lacking legal authority, the hundreds of thousands of brown-shirted Stormtroopers of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung constituted a militia of the Nazi Party and were free to attack and bully citizens who showed any sign of dissent from the regime. Although Herbert was non-political, the waiting Stormtrooper saw his petty vandalism as a political act and took him into custody. Paul went along to be a witness in his brother’s defense, but soon found himself taken into custody as well.
As Paul and Herbert got passed on from the Stormtrooper to a bicycle policeman to an automobile police squad to the police station, the story of the incident grew from a tipsy prank to an organized conspiracy against the state. By dawn, both Herbert and Paul were arrested and imprisoned and their case turned over to the “political police,” a part of the recently formed Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei or Gestapo). Apparently the fact that Paul was a lawyer in training (Referendar) increased the Gestapo’s suspicions. The brothers were held for more than a week without charges and were subject to repeated beatings.
The day after the arrest, my grandmother and my father and mother began agitating with the police for the young men’s release. It took three days just to identify the official with authority over Paul and Herbert’s case. My grandmother was so desperate for her sons’ release that she forced herself to mumble “Heil Hitler!” to the police official, the only time in the entire Nazi period that she ever used that hated salutation. As my father wrote at the time, “Endless approaches, endless waiting, walking down endless corridors, daily hopes, daily disappointments, long negotiations and discussions, after the third day with the help of a lawyer.” After a week, Paul was released with no explanation either for his arrest or his beatings or his release. He left the city immediately to recuperate from the wounds he received in the beatings. Herbert continued to be held, inexplicably, because, as my father wrote, “He never at any time ever engaged in any political activity whatsoever.” Nevertheless, it took another week to negotiate his release, again without explanation, but, as my mother wrote, he came out “relatively undamaged.”
In the end, it all came to nothing and the brothers returned to their respective occupations. But the reality of being arrested and beaten and held for many days for no reason was part of the atmosphere of terror that would be part of daily life in Germany for the next 12 years.
More stories about the Hoeber and Fischer families are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at Amazon.com
When I went to my late sister Susanne’s Vermont home recently, I spotted this familiar old family vase. I placed it on a table on the sunny porch to photograph it. Then, with relatives watching, I turned the vase over and poured out — some ordinary sea sand.
How did I know there would be sand in the vase? The answer is a story I heard from my father a long time ago.
My great-grandfather, Jacob Marx, was a banker and investor in Berlin in the mid-nineteenth century. He made some smart investments in the industrial boom before and after the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s. Some of his new wealth he invested in art, including several antique Delft vases.
After Jacob died in 1883, the vases were owned by his widow, Marie, and when she died in 1913 they were inherited by my grandparents, Rudolf Höber and Josephine Marx Höber. At that time, Rudolf and Josephine lived on Hegewischstrasse in Kiel, a university city and naval harbor on the Baltic Sea.
Josephine displayed the vases atop a tall Schrank, an antique wardrobe cabinet in the family living room. Inconveniently, however, a streetcar line traversed the street in front of the residence, and every time a trolley went past the Delft vases shook and rattled. The noise annoyed Josephine, who also feared the old pieces would be shaken off the cabinet and break. To resolve the problem, she gave her ten-year-old son Johannes a metal pail and told him to go down to the shore of the Baltic, fill the bucket with sand and bring it home. Josephine then filled each Delft vase with sand. The extra weight kept them from rattling on top of the Schrank for the next 19 years.
In 1933, the Nazis forced Rudolf out of his position in Kiel and he and Josephine emigrated to Philadelphia. They took the vases with them — and the sand went along. Josephine died in 1941 and Rudolf in 1953 and then the vases — and the sand — were inherited by my parents, Johannes and Elfriede. They moved several times and at each move the vases were carefully packed and the sand with them.
Johannes died in Washington DC in 1977 and Elfriede in Oakland, California in 1999. When we divided up Elfriede’s possessions among her three children, my sister Sue expressed a desire to have the Delft vases. We wrapped them and transported them — and the sand — to the house in Barnard, Vermont, where she and her husband Lloyd worked and wrote in the summers for many years. And there they have remained until now. The next home for the Delft vases and the sand from the Baltic Sea remains to be seen.
More stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at Amazon.com
Review of “Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939” from CHOICE, A Publication of the Association of College and Research LibrariesPosted: May 2, 2016
I am delighted that the following review appeared on May 1, 2016, in CHOICE, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.
AGAINST TIME: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, by Francis W. Hoeber
Francis Hoeber possesses, apparently, decades’ worth of materials from his family’s history. However, he has chosen to publish only letters from 1938 and 1939, because they are truly exceptional in foregrounding human experience in the face of obliterating fascism. His father, Johannes, had emigrated from Germany in 1938, with the idea that Elfriede would follow with their young daughter. Complications arose. Eventually they united, lived in the US, and raised their family. That is a passive, objective summary. In contrast, these letters, written by two literate, gifted writers, construct a deeply experienced history entwined with significant world events. Genuine, emotional, human, rational—the letters exemplify precisely why published history needs such primary material. We can read or view synthesized historical accounts in textbooks or documentaries; we can summarize and categorize, intellectually. However, only by absorbing the personal narratives of people who recount the events they lived through can readers approximate the feelings, the vibrant presence, the individual acts that enliven historical experience. Through self-expressed microhistory, whether routine (running a business) or epochal (Kristallnacht), readers feel the macrohistory viscerally. Hoeber provides relevant context in footnotes and summaries to orient readers.
Summing up: Highly recommended.
–J. B. Wolford, University of Missouri—St. Louis
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Also available at Amazon.com